Costa Rica Endures Its Bloodiest Civil War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Acting on years of frustration with the political system in Costa Rica, José Figueres Ferrer launched an armed rebellion against President Teodoro Picado Michalski. Inspired by a disputed election in 1948 and with aid from other Central American governments, the Army of National Liberation conducted a bloody forty-day revolution that ended with victory for Figueres.

Summary of Event

Costa Rica emerged from the nineteenth century as an anomaly among Central American countries. As opposed to its neighbors, Costa Rica enjoyed relative political stability, democratic governance, social mobility, and economic independence based on its vast coffee and banana plantations. However, Costa Rica still suffered from the vast unemployment and widespread poverty that was characteristic of other Central American countries. [kw]Costa Rica Endures Its Bloodiest Civil War (Mar. 12-Apr. 19, 1948) [kw]Civil War, Costa Rica Endures Its Bloodiest (Mar. 12-Apr. 19, 1948) [kw]War, Costa Rica Endures Its Bloodiest Civil (Mar. 12-Apr. 19, 1948) War for National Liberation, Costa Rican (1948) Costa Rican civil war of 1948 Civil wars;Costa Rica War for National Liberation, Costa Rican (1948) Costa Rican civil war of 1948 Civil wars;Costa Rica [g]Latin America;Mar. 12-Apr. 19, 1948: Costa Rica Endures Its Bloodiest Civil War[02410] [g]Costa Rica;Mar. 12-Apr. 19, 1948: Costa Rica Endures Its Bloodiest Civil War[02410] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 12-Apr. 19, 1948: Costa Rica Endures Its Bloodiest Civil War[02410] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 12-Apr. 19, 1948: Costa Rica Endures Its Bloodiest Civil War[02410] Figueres Ferrer, José Calderón Guardia, Rafael Angel Picado Michalski, Teodoro Ulate Blanco, Otilio Davis, Nathaniel P. Cortés Castro, León

The 1930’s witnessed the rise of a devoted Costa Rican Communist Party Communist Party, Costa Rican in spite of fears that it would undermine the nation’s traditional religious and political institutions. The authoritarian practices of President León Cortés Castro from 1936 through 1940 caused a rift between the country’s political parties, as the anti-Communist Castro routinely cast aside election results that favored his opponents. Promising electoral reform and a return to democracy, Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, a devout Catholic and capitalist, was elected president in 1940.

While much of the world was engaged in World War II, a steady growth in population created a housing shortage in Costa Rica, and the country’s traditional agricultural economy could not keep pace with the rest of the world’s industrial marketplace. Costa Ricans were becoming increasingly aware of their own lack of opportunity and expected the government to intervene and lift the nation out of despondency. A reform to the political, economic, and social structures was deemed necessary to prevent a violent and destructive insurrection.

President Calderón Guardia instituted sweeping reforms aimed at solving many of his country’s problems, but he was stymied by resistance from the elite upper class, who felt threatened by the prospect of social change. Calderón Guardia received his toughest opposition from Partido Acción Demócrata (PAD; Democratic Action Party Democratic Action Party, Costa Rican ), whose constituents supported social change but not in the form offered by the existing political entities. The founder and self-appointed leader of PAD was José Figueres Ferrer, better known as Don Pepe. Figueres accused the government of corruption and advocated the formation of a socialist state in Costa Rica. After speaking out against the Calderón Guardia government in 1942, Figueres was exiled to Mexico. He returned in 1944 following the election of Calderón Guardia’s successor, Teodoro Picado Michalski.

While in exile, Figueres plotted the downfall of the Costa Rican government. He worked closely with the governments of the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Guatemala, who agreed to aid in the overthrow of Picado and Calderón Guardia. If the revolution was successful, Costa Rica would serve as the staging ground for future revolutions in Central America. The end result, according to Figueres, would be a federated republic of Central American states. This alliance was later known as the Caribbean League.

Partido Acción Demócrata merged with Centro para el Estudio de los Problemas Nacionales (Centro; Center for the Study of National Problems) in 1945 to become the Social Democratic Party Social Democratic Party, Costa Rican . The Social Democratic Party ran Otilio Ulate Blanco against President Picado in the 1948 elections. The stage was set for revolution on February 8, 1948—election day in Costa Rica. By the time the polls closed that night, all indications were that Ulate Blanco had won a decisive victory. However, by the next day, Picado, at the urging of Calderón Guardia, declared the election a fraud and refused to concede the presidency. Supporters of both candidates protested the results, and violence seemed inevitable. Figueres seized this opportunity, taking full advantage of the rising tensions, to launch his “War of National Liberation.”

Armed conflict began on March 12, 1948, as two factions of Figueres’s National Liberation Army National Liberation Army, Costa Rican set out from Tarrazú, a small town in southern Costa Rica. One group seized the town of San Isidro, while the other, in the nation’s capital, San José, requisitioned three airplanes that were used to transport arms and reinforcements from Guatemala throughout the war. The National Liberation Army worked its way north on the Pan American Highway, capturing small towns along the way. Its efforts progressed with little real opposition from the central government, which was busy strengthening defenses in the capital.

The first real opposition to the National Liberation Army came on April 12 in Cartago, the second-largest city in Costa Rica, located just twelve miles from San José. A fierce firefight ensued, but the rebels eventually overran the city, bringing themselves within striking distance of the capital. The following day, a cease-fire was called, as the Picado administration faced certain destruction by Figueres’s multinational force. A diplomatic corps was assembled, led by U.S. ambassador Nathaniel P. Davis. On April 19, President Picado signed a peace treaty and stepped down from office. Six days later, Figueres and the National Liberation Army entered San José as victors.

In the end, an estimated two thousand men lost their lives in the conflict, with fewer than one hundred of those being from the revolutionary ranks. Figueres would serve as the interim president of Costa Rica for eighteen months, at which time he abdicated to Ulate Blanco, whom he regarded as the rightfully elected president. Figueres would be elected to two additional terms as president, from 1953 to 1958 and from 1970 to 1974.


During his tenure as interim president, Figueres established the Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN; National Liberation Party National Liberation Party, Costa Rican ). The PLN served as Figueres’s party in both of his election campaigns, and in 1994, José María Figueres Olsen Figueres Olsen, José María , the son of the former president, was elected as the PLN candidate. This is indicative of the course of events following the 1948 revolution. Under Figueres and a steady stream of moderate governments, Costa Rica continued the trend of being the most stable, peaceful, and democratic country in Central America. While its neighbors witnessed countless coups, revolts, dictators, and wars, the reforms instituted under Figueres and continued by his successors have ensured relatively peaceful conditions. War for National Liberation, Costa Rican (1948) Costa Rican civil war of 1948 Civil wars;Costa Rica

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ameringer, Charles D. Don Pepe: A Political Biography of José Figueres of Costa Rica. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978. Comprehensive biography of the man who led Costa Rica’s bloody civil war. Adds insight into Figueres’s life and his motivations for wanting to see Costa Rica liberated from corrupt politicians. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, John Patrick. Crisis in Costa Rica: The 1948 Revolution. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1971. Detailed and comprehensive study focusing on the 1948 revolution. Lacks a section on the aftermath of the war. Selected bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Booth, John A. Costa Rica: Quest for Democracy. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. Examines Costa Rica’s status as the most democratic country in Central America. Traces the development of political parties, personalities, and institutions. Thoroughly indexed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holden, Robert H. Armies Without Nations: Public Violence and State Formation in Central America, 1821-1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Discusses the role of violence as a tool for political change as a theme in Central American history. Significant attention is paid to the 1948 Costa Rican revolution as a case study. Extensive bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Longley, Kyle. The Sparrow and the Hawk: Costa Rica and the United States During the Rise of Jose Figueres. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997. Uses a variety of sources from the United States and Costa Rica. Examines the relationship between Figueres and the United States. Provides a clear explanation of a rather complex series of events. Bibliography and index.

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Categories: History